All Commentary
Friday, May 3, 2013

Built on Sand

I. J. Singer. The Brothers Ashkenazi. Translated by Joseph Singer. New York: Other Press, [1937] 2010. 427 pages.

The Brothers Ashkenazi is a novel about a lost world, written in a lost world. Set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the bustling Jewish mill town of Lodz, Poland, and written in 1937, it is at once a depiction of the lively Eastern European Jewish world that disappeared during World War II and a production of a flourishing 1930s immigrant Yiddish literary culture that could not imagine the horrors of the Holocaust. 

A sprawling family saga, The Brothers Ashkenazi is the story of Max and Jacob Ashkenazi, who navigate the multi-layered world of Lodz from two very different angles. Max is the stereotypical businessman and dealmaker, focused for nearly all his life on using his considerable intelligence to accumulate as much wealth as possible and become “The King of Lodz.” From the time he is a child, playing cards for money under the table when he is supposed to be studying the Torah, to when he is an adult running a fabric mill and finding ways to cut workers' salaries, use ever-cheaper materials, make workers pay for their own candles, and arrange unsavory side deals, Max’s obsession is accumulation. He sacrifices everything to his drive for more—even his marriage. He lends endless money to his father-in-law, intentionally calls in the debts precisely when he knows that his father-in-law will be unable to pay, and claims his factory as payment. His wife, like much of the older generation in Lodz, is horrified:

 “To do such a thing to your own father-in-law? Where’s the justice therein?” 
“Idiots!” their younger counterparts sneered. “Justice isn’t a commodity in Lodz. It isn’t wool or cotton.”

But Lodz isn’t just commerce. Lodz is also sexuality and family life. Representing that side of Lodz is Max’s twin brother Jacob. Jacob has none of Max’s mercantile talents and none of his sharp intelligence, but he has a zest for life and for pleasure that makes him fun to be around. That zest also leads him into trouble, as his fondness for luxuries, parties, and women leads him down the all-too-predictable path to poverty. His charm and good luck, however, always swoop in to save him. 

Singer’s novel is not a mechanistic counterposing of two stereotypes—the wicked capitalist and the admirable spendthrift. Max, after all, is not all wicked, and Jacob certainly is not all good—he has a disconcerting fondness for his teenage niece, for example. Each brother is complicated in his own right, and they operate against the complex background of Lodz itself. Lodz contains approaches to the world that offer alternatives to Max’s strictly commercial approach to life and Jacob’s more playful outlook. There is, first of all, the alternative of religious devotion. Lodz is peopled by Jews of all kinds—from the most traditional Hasids to the more modernized Jews who arrive as refugees from Moscow. Again, this is no simple portrayal where the purity of an ancient faith is contrasted against the decadence of a modern society, or vice versa. Singer’s portrayal of Judaism offers us portraits of Jews of great learning and little faith, little learning and great faith, and every option in between. Nothing in Lodz is simple. Nothing in Lodz is clear. 

A good example of this religious complexity is Maximilian Flederbaum, who “despite all this wealth and awesome power . . . felt that he owed all his success to the lucky three-kopeck coin given him by the Kazimierz Rabbi. He tormented himself with the fact that he wasn’t repaying this debt properly.” As a result of his torment, Flederbaum gives an enormous amount of money to charitable causes so that poor Jews can have “money for Hanukah candles, for free infirmaries, for burial societies. He sent wagonloads of flour for the Passover matzos, and during periods of unemployment, he set up free soup kitchens.” He also builds a Jewish hospital, where the Jews of Lodz will be able to have kosher food, wear their tzitzit (ritual fringes), and not be expected to bow to crosses and icons. His torment and his charity, however, do not mean that he will hire Jews to work in his factory. They won’t work on Saturday, after all.

Lodz also offers the reader a vision of the political as the revolution arrives. Having systematically shown that commerce and family and religion don’t provide clear truths, Singer proceeds to do the same for politics. When a communist May Day demonstration turns from a workers protest against a vicious factory overseer into a bloody pogrom where Jews are slaughtered, beaten, and raped by their “class comrades,” there is little else to say about the promises of politics. Even the Jewish communist ringleader who organized the revolt begins to wonder, “Maybe man was essentially evil. Maybe it wasn’t the fault of economic circumstances . . . but the deficiencies of human character.” But by the next morning, the seductions of ideology are such that, “Like his pious father, whose faith in the Messiah nullified all contemporary suffering, Nissan reaffirmed his faith in the validity of his ideals and pushed aside all negative thought.” Those ideals lead directly to the deaths of several innocents, to the execution of one of the Ashkenazi brothers, and to the endless suffering of the other.

What should we make of The Brothers Ashkenazi, then? It is a novel that critiques any and all simple and systematic answers to the problem of being human. Markets are not enough. Merriment is not enough. Religion is not enough. Red flags are not enough. Human nature, or the forces of history, or the long dark story of persecution that troubles groups of outsiders like the Jews, seems destined to tear everything apart, no matter what dreams of stability they cling to. It is a dark vision, and The Brothers Ashkenazi is not just a historical novel, but a cautionary tale.

The novel’s final words leave us as unsettled and wary as the Jews of Lodz and elsewhere must have been when it was published:

“Sand,” they complained, shielding their eyes from the pursuing dust. “Everything we built here we built on sand.”
In the swiftly falling dusk, a flock of birds formed in the shape of a crescent and cawed against the ominous sky.